The Australian resources industry’s obsession with productivity in the wake of an unprecedented commodity price downturn has effectively ushered in a new era of mining.

Jobs have been lost, wages lowered and some projects mothballed pending price improvement, while a number of industry-altering technologies have emerged in a bid to lower costs and improve efficiencies.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Pilbara, where masses of iron ore are being produced at prices lower than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, those lowering costs quickest are the region’s three largest iron ore producers – Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group.

Rio’s Pilbara cash costs fell 24 per cent over the 2015 calendar year to US$14.90 ($19.64) per tonne (exchange rate at the time of print). BHP reported its Western Australian iron ore cash costs at US$15.21 ($20.04) per tonne at the financial half year – a 25 per cent decrease on the previous year’s half-year figure, while FMG’s cash costs were reported at US$14.79 ($19.49) per wet metric tonne at the end of the March quarter – a massive 43 per cent reduction on the corresponding quarter in 2015.

To attribute these changes solely to the implementation of automation would be incorrect – all of these miners have embarked on significant cost-reduction strategies across their iron ore businesses over the period.

In a similar vein, the use of automated machinery at these projects is hardly new to the region, with Rio having introduced automated drilling as early as 2008.

However, as commodity prices have fallen, innovative technologies have taken on a new importance in the ongoing battle for low costs, leaving all else in their wake.

National Mining Chronicle explores the implications of a swift move towards automation across the areas of employment, safety and social responsibility.

Upskilling for survival
While a number of jobs have been lost during the Pilbara’s transition to a focus on cost reduction, Hays Regional Director of Resources and Mining Chris Kent said he didn’t expect automation to directly impact job numbers.

Mr Kent said it was the make-up of the workforce, rather than its size, which was likely to change as a result of the technologies implemented by miners.

“Organisations utilising automation say that existing workers whose jobs are replaced are moved into higher- value roles,” he said.

“Provided the employer provides the appropriate training, its existing workforce numbers should remain steady.

“The shift in the type of jobs performed is the biggest impact of automation on employees. Provided manual operators or anyone whose job is replaced by automation received the opportunity to upskill, they’ll be able to move into new job possibilities.”

Despite commitments from organisations operating autonomously in the sector currently, a paper released in mid-2015 by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia conceded it was likely automation would cost Australians their jobs down the track.

The Australia’s Future Workforce? publication found 40 per cent of jobs existing in the nation today had a high probability of becoming susceptible to computerisation and automation in the next 10 to 15 years. The paper found most mines in Australia would operate with less than a third of their current workforces within a decade of its release, with a high number engaging in their roles remotely.

Back to the present, Mr Kent said now was the time for mining sector employees to look at what they needed to do to remain relevant and in demand.

“Right now automation is focused on routine, repeated and monotonous tasks, which means if you are doing a job that a robot could do, you need to look at upskilling and learning how to work in new ways,” he said.

“New entrants to the labour force should also look at pursuing entry-level roles in areas where technology improvements will increase productivity rather than ultimately replacing workers. They should also make sure they learn skills related to automated and remotely- controlled systems.”

A social shake-up
The relationship between mining organisations and the communities in which they operate is generally one of reciprocal benefit, but a social responsibility expert has warned this could change should jobs be taken remote or removed.

The University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining Director David Brereton told National Mining Chronicle that taking feet off the ground could change the dynamic in mining towns.

“Historically the key-value proposition of mining to local communities was lots of jobs and business opportunities,” he said.

“Not all of these jobs will disappear, but a reasonable number will.

“The business opportunities left for local suppliers could diminish as well, because specialist requirements around maintaining very technical equipment are more likely to be met by suppliers based in large regional centres or capital cities, rather than small communities.

“The key social responsibility issue is that there is potential for less immediate flow back of local economic benefit to remote communities.”
Rio, BHP and Fortescue have indigenous training and employment initiatives in place and Professor Brereton said he expected this to create challenges as certain jobs moved offsite or disappeared.

“Each of the major players [in the Pilbara] – BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and now Fortescue – have agreements in place with traditional owner groups,” he said.

“All of these agreements to varying degrees have strong commitments around increasing representation of aboriginal people in the workforce.
“Based on other research we’ve done looking at open cut mines in WA and Queensland, more than half of the Aboriginal people who work in the mining industry are employed in manual and semi-skilled roles – particularly truck driving.”

Professor Brereton said while these issues could be addressed through investment in training over the longer-term they were likely to present more immediate challenges.

He proposed a rethink on employment strategies extending past the traditional industry interpretation of its role as a job creator.

“They will have to redefine their role as creators of employment as less about jobs specifically in mining and in facilitating building skills and opportunities for local Aboriginal people to find work in broader and ancillary industries,” Professor Brereton said.

The safety debate
WA was the first state to introduce autonomous mining safety codes in 2015, following an incident at BHP Billiton’s Jimblebar iron ore mine in which an autonomous vehicle allegedly collided with a manned water cart.

The Safe Mobile Autonomous Mining in WA Code of Practice identifies a number of risks to be considered when introducing autonomous equipment to both new and existing minesites.

Particular emphasis is given in the document to the interactions between machines and their environments.

CSIRO’s Data61 is Australia’s largest data innovation group and has explored the use of autonomous technologies across a range of industries for a number of years.

Data61 Product Program Manager Elliot Duff said technology had drastically improved in a short space of time but there were still challenges to be overcome.

“The ability for a machine to understand what’s happening around it has dramatically improved and the advantage of a robot, of course, is that it doesn’t get distracted or tired – it’s always monitoring what’s around it,” he said.

“The problem we have is whilst they’re perceptive and aware of their environment, they’re not very cognitive of what’s happening around them – they’re not able to predict things very well.”

Dr Duff said a lack of understanding of how the world worked put autonomous technologies at a disadvantage.

“A good example in autonomous cars is a ball crossing the road – if you see a ball crossing the road you know there’s going to be a child following. As an autonomous car you go ‘actually the ball is quite small, it’s not going to be a problem – I’ll keep driving’,” he said.

However, Dr Duff said the solution wasn’t necessarily in making autonomous vehicles smarter, but a collective intelligence system where all of the elements of the situation, including people, were tracked to communicate and create a broader picture of their environment.

“It’s about having a global awareness of knowing where all your assets are – people, vehicles and machines. When we lose communication is when we fail,” Mr Duff said.

“This system is an aversion – rather than trying to detect the person, you’re detecting their absence; that’s an easier problem.”

The ‘Big Brother’ style privacy issues around being tracked were obvious, but Dr Duff said this was a hurdle which could be overcome using systems that did not record a person’s movement.

Dr Duff said while productivity was a buzz term in the industry at present, safety was at the crux of the push for automation in the workforce.

“A lot of the original work in automation in mining came out of a desire to make the mine safer,” he said. “We really need to bring the words autonomy and safety together.”

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